RISING STAR Josh Walters insists his Leeds Rhinos squad number is just that – only a number.
Walters, 20, has been awarded Rhinos’ No 21 jumper for the new campaign less than two years after switching codes from rugby union.
Promotion into the full-time squad reflects the progress the back-rower has made in the 13-man code and how highly he is thought of by coach Brian McDermott, but Walters insists as far as he is concerned, he still has everything to prove and he is starting again from scratch this year.
“I don’t know if it means that much, though obviously if you are in the top-25 you are training full-time,” Walters said of his new place in Rhinos’ hierarchy.
“Brian spoke to me, he thinks it does mean something and it is better than last year, when I was an academy squad member. I can’t look too much into it, but it is nice to be there. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity in the team, but at the moment all I can do is get my head down and train hard and if that chance comes I have got to take it.”
Walters played nine games last year, stepping in when established players including Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brett Delaney were sidelined through injury. He is one of a number of players – such as 2013 Grand Final winner Stevie Ward – who will be looking to put pressure on Rhinos’ established back-rowers, but he stressed: “I am not taking anything for granted, no way. Just because you’ve got a squad number doesn’t mean you can slacken off.
“I have got in my position some of the best players in the world, if not the best. I can’t slacken off at all and I won’t be doing.”
Walters has been training since pre-season began and has played in Rhinos’ three trial games so far, including the 28-14 Lazenby Cup win at Hunslet Hawks two days ago.
“It is long and tough and it’s in the middle of winter, unlike union, but it has been really enjoyable and it’s been good to be around this squad, with the best players in the world,” he said of his first pre-season as a full-time player.
“It is all about bonding and getting a feel for how the team play and I have put on weight, which was my target. Hopefully once we get into games I’ll be able to carry it all right, so it has been good for me.”
Rhinos begin their First Utility Super League campaign at Hull KR on Sunday, February 8. Walters said: “I can’t wait to get started, whether I am in the team for the first game of the season or not. Pre-season is long and it’s hard work for 13 or 14 weeks – six days a week – so I am definitely looking forward to getting into it now and all I want to do is when my chance comes, take it. Brian said to me last year, if you are in the team you are going to be picking yourself – if you are playing well he can’t just take you out for no reason. When I get my chance I have to take it with both hands and kick on from there.”
Meanwhile, McDermott believes Rhinos’ young players – including Walters – have gained vital experience from the fixture at Hunslet, which saw them overturn a 14-0 interval deficit in attrocious conditions.
“It was a heavy game,” the coach said. “It was a heavy slog and a tough game which will have been good for the Brad Singletons, Josh Walters and Elliot Minchellas and those type of people, though probably not great for the half-backs and outside-backs, who never quite got out of the mud.”
McDermott added: “It is always interesting to watch a set of young fellas go against a good team in the division below.
“A lot of their fellas had played a lot of first-team games, been about the traps a bit and knew how to handle those type of conditions.
“They played the conditions a bit better than we did, but I didn’t think Hunslet were incredibly better than us in the first half, but they played all their stuff attacking our tryline and we didn’t seem to be able to get out or have the nouse to get away from our tryline.
“It was a pretty even-stevens game, other than the field position aspect.”